Thursday, June 30, 2011

Princess Diana at 50

You have to hand it to Tina Brown. She knows how to create Buzz.

When it comes to Buzz you can’t do much better than to bring Princess Diana back from the dead.

And now, for your next trick...

Brown is an accomplished, experienced magazine editor. She has not always succeeded, but she is giving her new stint at Newsweek her all. This week that includes a mix of hagiography and idolatry about the dear, departed Diana, Princess of Wales.

I don’t have the statistics at hand, but I recall that during her lifetime Princess Diana sold more magazines than anyone else. Her picture on the cover of a glossy would cause sales to jump. For the magazine trade Diana was gold.

If you have given up trying to compete with the Economist, and if you are trying to make your magazine relevant in a celebrity-strewn, gossipy way, why not put Diana back on the cover, and why not pair her with Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, the woman would now, if you had lived, been your daughter-in-law?  

It’s a nice counterfactual, albeit one that ignores the possibility that if Diana had lived, then perhaps her elder son would not have been drawn to Kate Middleton.

With counterfactuals, you never know.

Pictures are one thing. As Tina Brown knows well, because she is an excellent prose stylist, magazines must also include words. For that reason, she has chosen to some  strange musings about what Diana’s life would be today if she had lived to live it.

For my part I do not begrudge Brown the effort. Unfortunately, her text is mildly embarrassing. To her, I mean.

Brown sees Diana as victorious, a rousing success, a creature full of brains, beauty, and good works. Her Diana would have triumphed over marital adversity and come out of the turmoil of her Windsor phase, stronger, wiser, more desirable, and more prominent.

Brown’s Diana would be living in New York and would a cross between  Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Michelle Obama.

I will not belabor Brown’s points, but, upon reading it, the phrase that comes to mind is: “too good to be true.”

Not only is it too good to be true, it is also too good to be possible.

If you ignore everything you know about Diana and feel that poetic license allows you to make up what you please, then perhaps Brown’s counterfactual portrait rings true. Otherwise it rings hollow.

For all any of us knows, Diana might have grown up to resemble Sarah Ferguson. Certainly, she had far more in common with Fergie than she did with Jackie Onassis. Where Jackie Onassis was the soul of discretion, Diana was the soul of indiscretion.

So let’s do our own thought experiment and imagine that Diana had not been martyred under the Pont d’Alma on that September evening.

If she had not died, well then, she would have been remembered not only for her good works, but for her unexampled vulgarity, her passionate embrace of her own celebrity, her extreme indiscretion, and her unremitting hatred for her former husband.

It is fair to say that the Princess of Wales had become a therapy junkie, a bitter and vindictive woman whose goal in life was to destroy her ex-husband.

Had Diana not died as she did, the world might eventually have tired of Diana’s antics. Hers was celebrity with a purpose. She manipulated the press and the paparazzi into order to diminish and defeat the father of her children.

Tina Brown imagines that Diana, had she lived, would have reconciled with Prince Charles. To imagine that you have to believe that Diana could have overcome her visceral fear of abandonment and could have forgiven Camilla Parker-Bowles. You would also have to imagine that Prince Charles would have forgiven a woman who made him an international laughing-stock.

You may not recall-- you probably don’t-- but in the week preceding her death Diana put on quite a show with Dodi el-Fayad on his father’s yacht in the Mediterranean. The happy couple was prancing around for the paparazzi-- baiting them, you might say; enriching them, you might also say-- by showing off their newfound passion in full public view. How better to embarrass Prince Charles.

Diana’s fame lay in her celebrity, in her talent for self-exposure. Doesn’t it make sense to think that if a celebrity does not feed the media beast, it will eventually move on?

Brown does not consider the possibility, but I suspect that the public would have tired of Princess Diana. Her public persona hid a woman who was limitlessly vindictive.

Were she alive today, Diana might still be able to attract attention. She might well be on her third billionaire husband. She might still be able to raise money for worthy causes. She might even have joined the Clinton Global Initiative. Then again, she might not have.

Some, like Tina Brown, seem to see Diana’s funeral and the attendant public delirium as the prelude to eventual beatification.

For my part I suspect that the British public, after a week of unseemly caterwauling about the dearly departed Princess Diana, came to its senses and felt ashamed for having indulged such an intemperate exercise.

And hasn’t anyone else noticed that one of the reasons why the world loves Kate Middleton is that she is the anti-Diana, she is nothing like Diana?

Tina Brown might see Diana cozying up to the Middletons, but it is just as possible that an aging Diana, fearful of losing the spotlight, would have tried to put an end to her son’s relationship. And what makes you think that the Middleton's, concerned as they are about their own social standing, would have happily hung out with the disgraced princess. Given her insecurities Diana might well have insisted that her son marry a younger version of herself. When it came to Diana, it was all about Diana.

Another Giant Sucking Sound?

It’s been an article of liberal faith that the financial crisis was caused by a failure to regulate the banking system.

So, the Democratic Congress and President crafted something called the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill. Finally, the government would be able to place strict controls on Wall Street greed.  

Honorable people have different opinions on what caused the crisis of 2008. Different analyses lead to different policy prescriptions. If you want to know which is right and which is wrong, you can get a first indication by putting one of the policies into practice. They you can judge it by the effects it produces. It’s called a reality check.

In 1992 Ross Perot found his political voice when he started complaining about a “giant sucking sound” that was taking jobs out of America and into Mexico.

Today we are starting to hear a new sucking sound. It may not be gigantic, but it is beginning to suck jobs out of Wall Street and into Singapore.

Charles Gasparino reports: “Why is Goldman Sachs preparing to outsource traders, salespeople and investment bankers from here in America, where it has made untold billions over the years as Wall Street's premier trading firm, to places like Singapore and India?

“The answer can be found largely in the 2,000-plus pages of last year's Dodd-Frank financial ‘reform’ law -- which will eventually translate into some 40,000 pages of regulations. The financial industry is still frozen, waiting to find out how bad these regs will turn out; but what all the CEOs of the big banks know for sure is that it's about to get a lot more expensive to do business here.”

And also: “It's not just Goldman, which wants to expand a once-tiny Singapore office by hiring 1,000 executives while it contemplates a major job reduction at home. (Yesterday, Goldman told the labor department it's cutting at least 230 jobs.) Just about every major US bank is looking at outsourcing as a way to pay for the new costs of doing business as regulators hammer out new rules.”

Now to the fun part. Gasparino explains: “The biggest irony is that Wall Street has long been the engine financing the New York welfare state -- yet it's being squeezed by lefty politicians who believe in expanding the national welfare state.

Gasparino calls New York a welfare state-- it used to be called the Empire State-- because, in New York City, 40,000 people pay one half of the taxes.
That’s one half of one percent of the population paying one half of the taxes.

For those who want to soak the rich, New York is your kind of town.

But let’s be fair and balanced. It’s not just the leftist politicians who are destroying jobs in New York by punishing the Wall Street bankers. These same Wall Street bankers who are complaining most vociferously about Dodd-Frank are also self-proclaimed liberals.

Wall Street loved Barack Obama, far more than it loved his opponent. It raised vastly more money for him than it ever did or will for any lowly Republican or Tea Party candidate.

Wall Street is filled with true believing liberal Democrats who somehow or other did not grasp the implications of handing power to liberal Democrats in Washington.

Were it not for the fact that a sustained exodus of high-paying jobs is going to cause severe pain in New York City one would sit back and revel in the Schadenfreude.

Still, we offer no pity to the liberal Wall Street banker who is, in Shakespeare’s immortal words: “hoist with his own petard.”

Winston Churchill Explains Socialism

A quotation for today. Authored by Winston Churchill, it summarizes what the world, with a few exceptions, has come to understand about socialism.

Churchill said: “Socialism is a philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy, its inherent virtue is the equal sharing of misery.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

America's Moral Superiority

Yesterday Roger Cohen began his New York Times column on a promising note. He quoted late eminent British intellectual Isaiah Berlin saying that America was:  “aesthetically inferior but morally superior” to Europe.

Even though I would be hard pressed to apply the concept to all of Europe, it does contain more than a few germs of truth.

Cohen explains how aesthetic superiority crimps future success: “The aesthetics of European cities offer the consolation of the past’s grandeur but seldom the adrenalin of future possibility. It’s wonderful to be lost in Bruges or Amsterdam, Venice or Vienna. The palaces bear no relation to current obligations. They have become outsized repositories of beauty.”

One is reminded of Byron Wien’s much-quoted prophecy: “Well, I have this theory that if the European union doesn't work twenty years from now, Europe will be a vast open-air museum."

Cohen then defines American moral superiority: “Not for America the moral relativism of tired European powers that, ambition exhausted or crushed, settled for comfort and compromise.”

He adds that the greatness of America depends on the Puritan work ethic: “I was talking about puritanism the other day with an American friend who observed: ‘Don’t knock it — that’s what got us this country in the first place!’ There’s something to that: America has been inseparable from a city-on-the-hill idealism but also from a strong work ethic.”

Even with the syntactical muddle of that last sentence, Cohen sees clearly the difference between America and certain European countries.

Nevertheless, it’s worth the trouble to clarify his thinking.

As we see n the news, there are effectively two Europes. One is the hard-working North; the other is the decadent South. The latter countries are currently facing financial extinction while the former are faced with the dire necessity of propping up their profligate neighbors.

And then there is France. Seemingly astride the industrious North and the decadent South, France has typified aesthetic indulgence, but it has also been economically very industrious and successful.

When we think of European cultural decadence, we think of France.

The French excel at fashion and gastronomy, at what are supposed to be the finer things in life. And they have an extraordinary treasure trove of great art and architecture., to say nothing of some of the world’s greatest sensualists.

Aside from these qualifications, Berlin’s point is still well taken. Some European nations became too soft, too complacent, and too decadent in the years following World War II. They lost their ambition and their drive. It wasn’t so much their love for la dolce vita; it was more clearly their long love affair with socialism.

Too many Europeans got tired of competitive striving and decided that the only thing worth fighting for was more vacation time. Failing to understand that you have to pay for what you have they chose to believe that the government would provide a comfortable lifestyle.

While Cohen is correct to say that you cannot practice a work ethic without there being sufficient jobs, he fails to notice that the Puritan work ethic has been under serious attack by the cultural and intellectual elites for decades now.

He might have mentioned that the elites that have brought down the work ethic do not believe America to be superior in anything whatever.

Cohen is correct to blame Barack Obama for having failed to lead. But then, strangely, Cohen proposes that America regain its moral superiority by following the example of none other than: Bill Clinton.

Cohen chooses Clinton because a lot of jobs were created while he was president. In truth, a lot of jobs were created in the 1990s, but only Bill Clinton himself would take all the credit for himself. For most of the Clinton administration Republicans controlled Congress and were instrumental in setting the domestic political agenda.

Be that as it may, if any president qualifies as decadent it is Bill Clinton. Those European aesthetes, the ones that Cohen derided, love Bill Clinton. Those who look down their snouts at the Puritan work ethic considered Bill Clinton to be a great man... not despite Monica Lewinsky, but because of Monica Lewinsky.

National moral superiority must contain an element of emulation. You improve your behavior by emulating the example set by other human beings. To improve yourself morally you will need to emulate someone whose behavior is exemplary.

That man is not Bill Clinton.

Just read the Newsweek article that Cohen finds so illuminating. It is nothing if not an apologia for Bill Clinton. In it Clinton presents himself as a great job creator, as though he had never heard of triangulation.

Even if Clinton does not know what the term means, Roger Cohen should know that the first step toward moral superiority should involve humility.

But, what is Cohen’s Clintonian solution to our current descent into aesthetic superiority?

Nothing other than European-style energy policy and industrial policy. You begin to think that Cohen has started to channel Tom Friedman.

When left thinking people start talking about energy policy they mean government subsidized windmills and solar panels. If alternative energy was viable, it would not need endless subsidies. As it is, it produces less energy more expensively than coal and and nuclear.

Those who support green energy do not much care about the practicalities of using windmills to run an aluminum plant. Aside from the fact that they worship Nature like a bunch of born-again pagan idolaters, they also hold it as an article of faith that carbon-based energy, especially coal, is ugly and aesthetically disagreeable.

The world envisioned by green energy advocates has no real chance of becoming real. But if it did, and if America were to follow an aesthetically advanced country like Spain down the road to green energy, it would have to accept that green energy kills jobs. In Spain, green energy cost 2.2 jobs for every job it created.

To keep our fairness and balance, we should note that Clinton suggests that you cannot create jobs without cutting back on bureaucratic red tape.

But hasn’t the Democratic party spent the much-vaunted Obama stimulus to expand the bureaucracy? What did they expect that these bureaucrats would be doing with their time? And hasn’t the Democratic party been defending the job killing practices of labor unions and advocacy groups?

As I was thinking through these issues, I came across a New York Times article by University of Chicago professor, Casey Mulligan.

Reflecting on the fact that American teenagers are having a great deal of difficulty finding work this summer, Mulligan recommends that we factor in the influence of the new minimum wage law.

He explains: “Employment during recessions tends to drop disproportionately among low-skilled people like teenagers, so the latest recession has to be the biggest factor in explaining why teenage employment rates are so low today.

“But minimum-wage laws also disproportionately affect teenagers — reducing their employment rates — and the federal minimum wage was increased three times in and around this recession. (Next week I will present more evidence on the number of jobs lost because of the most recent federal minimum wage hike.)

If the government wants to help raise teenage employment rates significantly, a good way to start would be by reducing labor market regulation rather than spending tax dollars on youth employment programs.”

One wonders whether Bill Clinton and Roger Cohen will join the fight to reduce labor market regulation, beginning with the minimum wage. Otherwise, one might think that they are simply playing politics.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Psychiatry Today

Long time readers of this blog know that I have been critical of the way psychiatry is practiced in America today.

Only yesterday, I joined Susan Cain in deriding psychiatrists for being too eager to classify character traits, like shyness, as psychiatric symptoms and then to offer to medicate them.

In the past I have reported that medication has now replaced talk therapy as the treatment of choice, not only because allows psychiatrists to make more money, but also because it seems to work better.

Whether this reflects the sorry state of most talk therapy or the wondrous power of medication has yet to be established.

Having no qualification to comment on biomedical facts, I have generally avoided passing judgment on how well the new medications work. Nor have I commented on the suggestions that they can actually be harmful.

I would maintain that psychopharmacology has been a boon to psychotics and to those who suffer from bipolar illness. You do not really want to deal with an unmedicated schizophrenic. This despite some of the bad side-effects of anti-psychotic medication.

Nevertheless, America is now awash in mental illness, and people are beginning to suspect that it’s not just because we have all become crazier.

All things considered, I am very grateful to the friend who drew my attention to a two part article by Harvard professor Marcia Angell that has appeared in the most recent issues of the New York Review of Books. Links here and here.

Angell is a former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, thus, she is eminently qualified to judge the current state of psychiatry.

Written as a book review of recent studies in the field, Angell’s view of the current state of psychiatry is, if anything, more negative than mine.

She begins by noting that, if we follow the accepted psychiatric guidelines, America has been suffering from an epidemic of mental illness.

But if, as psychiatry now believes, these illnesses are based on biology, it does not make a great deal of sense for there to have been such a notable increase in their prevalence. And f medicine works so well, why are there so many more people suffering from mental illness. Shouldn’t they all have been cured?

In her words: “Is the prevalence of mental illness really that high and still climbing? Particularly if these disorders are biologically determined and not a result of environmental influences, is it plausible to suppose that such an increase is real? Or are we learning to recognize and diagnose mental disorders that were always there? On the other hand, are we simply expanding the criteria for mental illness so that nearly everyone has one? And what about the drugs that are now the mainstay of treatment? Do they work? If they do, shouldn’t we expect the prevalence of mental illness to be declining, not rising?”

Summarizing the research findings of books by Irving Kirsch, Robert Whitaker, and Daniel Carlat, she observes: “First, they agree on the disturbing extent to which the companies that sell psychoactive drugs—through various forms of marketing, both legal and illegal, and what many people would describe as bribery—have come to determine what constitutes a mental illness and how the disorders should be diagnosed and treated.”

Of course, pharmaceutical manufacturers lavish attention on all physicians. Yet, psychiatrists tend to receive more than their fair share of largesse.

Why should this be? Angell explains: “Unlike the conditions treated in most other branches of medicine, there are no objective signs or tests for mental illness—no lab data or MRIfindings—and the boundaries between normal and abnormal are often unclear. That makes it possible to expand diagnostic boundaries or even create new diagnoses, in ways that would be impossible, say, in a field like cardiology. And drug companies have every interest in inducing psychiatrists to do just that.”

Psychiatrists have embraced the theory of biomedical causation because it is in their interest to do so. Facing competition from other mental health professionals and non-medical professionals, they have found an excellent way to distinguish themselves and to control their market.

Angell writes: “Since psychiatrists must qualify as MDs, they have the legal authority to write prescriptions. By fully embracing the biological model of mental illness and the use of psychoactive drugs to treat it, psychiatry was able to relegate other mental health care providers to ancillary positions and also to identify itself as a scientific discipline along with the rest of the medical profession. Most important, by emphasizing drug treatment, psychiatry became the darling of the pharmaceutical industry, which soon made its gratitude tangible.”

Angell also addresses larger issues about whether the new psychoactive medications cause more harm than good. I recommend you to her extensive explanations.

As for the looming question, of how we should treat depression if we are not to rely on antidpressants, Angell offers an opinion that coincides well with my own: “Both psychotherapy and exercise have been shown to be as effective as drugs for depression, and their effects are longer-lasting, but unfortunately, there is no industry to push these alternatives and Americans have come to believe that pills must be more potent.”

I would qualify the assertion by pointing out that the kinds of psychotherapy that are most effective in dealing with depression are either based on cognitive-behavioral principles or involve treatments where patient and therapist establish a solid human connection.

This would preclude any therapy based on psychoanalytic principles, since the latter treatment, by definition, insists that patient and therapist should not connect in any meaningful human way.

I and many others have come to see that aerobic exercise is an effective treatment for many kinds of depression, but that Americans are hesitant to involve themselves in it because it requires work, because there is no industry pushing it on us, and because it’s a lot easier and feels more American to take a pill.

Gender-Neutering in Sweden

The first word that comes to mind when you read the story is: Orwellian.

What would happen if a group of educators in some far off land decided to put in practice all of the most trendy theories of gender? What would happen if they had been given control over the minds of preschool children, the better to prevent them from ever thinking in terms of gender stereotypes? What if they were allowed to rid children's minds of anything that resembled hetero-normativity.

If they created a school to effect their ideologically-driven ways, they would naturally call it: Egalia, which seems to echo the French world for equality: egalite.

As I say, it feels perfectly Orwellian.

Most people think it is some kind of joke. When the AP reported the story, it presented it in almost a comic mode, as though it were just a new way to fight gender bias.

Besides, it’s just happening in Sweden, and, after all, what the Swedes do to their children is their business, not ours.

It’s easier to think of it as a joke. Otherwise, it feels like child abuse.

In Sweden, removing any references to gender is national policy. In America it’s informal policy. Some American school districts read books about how Heather has two Mommies. In Egalia the children are not allowed to discuss hetero-normative sexual congress.

In Egalia children are not allowed to use gender-specific generic pronouns. The Swedes have eliminated their versions of “his” and “her” from the language.

In America a college student would not be allowed to use generically masculine pronouns. Most American publications today will never use generic masculine pronouns, preferring “he or she” or, most commonly now, generic female pronouns.

That means that if the gender of a doctor or lawyer has not been specified you are not allowed to refer to him as a he.

No one believes that anti-male bias in America has reached the level that it has in Sweden, but it certainly exists in the school system.

Sad to say it, but Egalia is not a joke. It is an extreme instance of what happens when ideological zealots take over a school system.

Human language is the most venerable of human institutions. It has developed over millennia through usage, not by being dictated by a bunch of patriarchs.

Most if not all languages divide human beings by gender. To do otherwise would be to detach language completely from reality.

Now, Swedish educators and no small number of American gender-bending zealots have decided, on their own, that gender differences are intrinsically prejudicial to girls.

Thus, these educators refuse to allow young children to speak a real language. They happily, and without qualms, force them to use invented words, words that do not exist in the language, in order to avoid gender stereotyping.

As the AP reports: “Staff try to shed masculine and feminine references from their speech, including the pronouns him or her — ‘han’ or ‘hon’ in Swedish. Instead, they've have adopted the genderless 'hen,' a word that doesn't exist in Swedish but is used in some feminist and gay circles.”

Of course, some parents are disturbed at this trend. Which is good. But, how many parents simply go along with the trend because it is the trend and because it is supported by “experts.”

Parents wonder, quite rightly, about how the children of Egalia will be able to adapt to the outside world. They might ask what these children will do when they start learning foreign languages. What if you try eliminating masculine and feminine nouns and pronouns from French or Latin. You will never pass Latin if you ignore gender.

As it happens, the school is not in the business of helping children to adapt to the real world.
It wants children to belong to a utopian community, not to the real world where men and women are not neutered.

They are initiating preschool children into cult, an alternative community where specialized linguistic cues tell people whether or not your belong.  The educators are creating a cult of dysfunctional children. Will they grow up to be dysfunctional adults?

Shouldn't we ask whether these children will be traumatized once they leave the confines of their school? And, isn't this form of pedagogy really a way of sacrificing children’s minds to an ideal. To me this feels like child abuse.

While the Swedish educators claim that they are promoting equality the true victims of these methods are boys.

As the AP story reports: “Jay Belsky, a child psychologist at the University of California, Davis, said he's not aware of any other school like Egalia, and he questioned whether it was the right way to go. ‘The kind of things that boys like to do — run around and turn sticks into swords — will soon be disapproved of,’ he said. ‘So gender neutrality at its worst is emasculating maleness.’"

Few schools are as extreme as Egalia, but many of these techniques are not foreign to the American educational environment.

When bizarre American graduate students rail about hetero-normativity, most sensible people smile at their immaturity. In Sweden the school called Egalia is living the dream.

There, children can read: “... a story about two male giraffes who are sad to be childless — until they come across an abandoned crocodile egg.”

The story assumes that the two giraffes are childless because of some patriarchal conspiracy. You wonder how the story explains where the crocodile came from. I will also guess that it does not tell us what happens when the little crocodile, having been raised by giraffes, becomes a large carnivorous reptile, and looks around to see... dinner.

Naturally, opposite sexed couples, the kind that might procreate, have been banished from the curriculum: “Nearly all the children's books deal with homosexual couples, single parents or adopted children. “

Apparently, these zealots have decided that heterosexuality was invented to discriminate against those who are not heterosexual.

They also seem to believe that heterosexual reproduction is prejudicial against those couples who cannot perform the act.

Thus, children are being forced to pretend that that the kind coupling that produced them does not really exist.

As for the ultimate point of this utopian experiment, one of Egalia’s teachers explains it: "’Society expects girls to be girlie, nice and pretty and boys to be manly, rough and outgoing’," says Jenny Johnsson, a 31-year-old teacher. ’Egalia gives them a fantastic opportunity to be whoever they want to be.’"

But, who will tell these children that in the real world you cannot be whoever you want to be? What if these children decide that they don’t want to be Swedish? What if the boys decide that they really like to play with trucks and swords? What if the girls decide that they want to play with dolls and grow up to be wives and mothers?

Actually, these preschool children are being brainwashed into thinking that they cannot be whoever they want to be. They are being forced to be whoever their teachers and minders want them to be.

Monday, June 27, 2011

More Homework, Please!

First, there was the Tiger Mom. Depending on who you were reading, she was either the paragon of Confucian parenting, a wanna-be Drill Instructor, or just plain abusive.

Then came the backlash. Parents far and wide rebelled against the great symbol of overly strict parenting: homework assignments. Apparently, children who were forced to do too much homework were losing out in the creativity race, and would not be able to fulfill their futures as job jugglers.

Now, the inevitable return to normalcy. KJ. Dell’Antonia explains the value of homework on the DoubleX blog: “For my son, the homework often meant that he went from school to sport to homework to bed with no break. For my daughter, with her lighter load, it wasn't the homework itself (which took next to no time and which she sometimes persuaded her 4-year-old brother to do for her), it was getting her to sit down and do it. And it was exactly that process of pushing her to sit down every night and get through that worksheet that reminds me of why she had the homework in the first place.”

It’s a nice coda to the debate.